“Never forget that honor, like character, is what you do when nobody is looking.”
For all its life-wisdom and creative inspiration, commencement season could use an adjustment of the reality radar and address some of our time’s most uncomfortable yet pressing issues in those speeches designed to send graduating seniors off into the real world they are about to reshape. Though integrity is a common theme in such messages — curiously, especially in decades-old ones like those by Richard Feynman and Bill Watterson — integrity’s most gruesome failures are rarely discussed. But that’s precisely what President Obama, who is no stranger to inspirational graduation speeches, did in his 2013 U.S. Naval Academy commencement address when he brought into the limelight the devastating epidemic of rape in the military — a military in which 26,000 sexual assaults were reported last year, a female soldier in a combat zone is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire, and those who have the power to change things fail to do so; a military whose willingness to curtail such dehumanizing violence has not evolved but dramatically devolved since the Civil War.
Those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime — they threaten the trust and discipline that makes our military strong. That’s why we have to be determined to stop these crimes, because they have no place in the greatest military on earth. So, class of 2013, I say all this because you are about to assume the burden of leadership. … And those of us in leadership, myself included, have to constantly strive to remain worthy of the public trust. As you carry forth … we need your honor — that inner compass that guides you not when the path is easy and obvious, but when it’s hard and uncertain; that tells you the difference between that which is right and that which is wrong. Perhaps it’ll be the moment when you think nobody is watching — but never forget that honor, like character, is what you do when nobody is looking.
(Nearly half a century ago, Joan Didion wrote, “Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.”)
A mere day later, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel took the podium at West Point and echoed President Obama in addressing the 215th graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy:
You will need to not just deal with these debilitating, insidious, and destructive forces but, rather, you must be the generation of leaders that stop it. This will require a commitment to building a culture of respect and dignity for every member of the military and society. Sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military are a profound betrayal of sacred oaths and sacred trust. This scourge must be stamped out. We’re all accountable and responsible for ensuring that this happens. … These crimes have no place — NO PLACE — in the greatest military on earth.
But more than a decade before Obama and Hagel, long before the full devastating scale of the problem was known, Terri Spahr Nelson — a decorated United States Army veteran and psychotherapist specializing in sexual trauma recovery — writes in For Love of Country: Confronting Rape and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military, a series of stirring interviews with assault survivors:
We can and should learn from the insight of those who experienced sexual assault and sexual harassment by military personnel. Maybe then we will fully learn what needs to be done to improve the military’s response to the victims, to the offenders, and to this issue. We might also learn how to put a stop to this cycle of abuse. As one veteran and rape victim asked, “Hasn’t this gone on long enough?”
Indeed, it has gone on long enough. This enduring problem has cost lives and careers. We cannot afford to lose another life at the hands of continued indifference or power failure. These stories need to be told not to degrade the military, but as a step toward addressing the problem and restoring honor and integrity within the Armed Forces. After all, there is no honor without truth.
She cites a nineteen-year-old female soldier raped while on active duty:
I was prepared to be a prisoner of war or worse for my country. I wasn’t prepared to have my superiors and comrades sexually abuse me. I must admit that a chaplain I told my story to in 1996 said something I had not realized. He said, “Your comrades were your enemy and you were in a combat zone.”
Sexual assault and harassment are deeply rooted in today’s armed forces. The problem is further complicated by a system that has been unable or unwilling to effectively address this issue over the years. Far too many military leaders have turned their heads to the ongoing abuses and far too many victims have been further harmed by a culture that perpetuates and minimizes the abuse. These types of response represent a breakdown of values, a disconnection from the military’s true mission, and a loss of honor for those involved.
So, why now? How come this deeply rooted malady is only reaching critical cultural awareness and eliciting a call of action, from the President no less, now? It is, no doubt, in large part thanks to the remarkable film The Invisible War (watch online), which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and which exposed, with heartbreaking humanity, the military’s most disgraceful cover-up as a problem that isn’t just a military problem: